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Those tumescent with anticipation for Grizzly Bear’s return to the complex, orchestral beginnings as a full band with Yellow House and Veckatimest will find much to love in Painted Ruins. While Shields was critically no misfire, it took the newfound audience they had earned through late night talk show appearances and year-end best-of-indie compilations and gave those fans a more digestible offering, whether intentionally or not. One half is undeniably as strong as what they had produced on previous albums, while the other succumbs to easy plodding tunes like “Gun-Shy” and “The Hunt” – tunes that beg the admission, You’re better than this. Its B-Sides EP perplexed even further, showing that the bonus tracks and demos that didn’t make it to the final product appeared fuller, richer, and just as explorative as was expected; at very least helping to scratch the itch that need not have been scratched. In waiting for a restoration of form, five years of dormancy have proved arduous yet rewarding for Painted Ruins’ gestation period.
Early single “Mourning Sound” could not be more of a red herring for what lies in store beyond; it plays it straight, baiting with its nod-inducing simplicity at the same angle of their most recent mien (“Speak in Rounds,” “A Simple Answer”). Yet even before this, we’re unsure of what to take for granted as the meandering jazz of “Wasted Acres” quizzically breaks a bottle of champagne against this vessel, setting us adrift on a tempestuous sea marked by a homecoming of dexterous arrangements. In fact, it’s such a reversal of Shields’ instant accessibility that although genius, its palette may appear alienating to some; shades of Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz in the wake of Merriweather Post Pavilion. In the words of Daniel Rossen from “Four Cypresses,” “It’s chaos but it works.”
Chris Taylor imbues a jaunty bass line seemingly plucked from Paul McCartney circa Magical Mystery Tour to craft the backbone to “Losing All Sense,” the closest the band has come to a bona fide power pop number. His role as a bassist comes with a disclaimer, as he wears many hats from a production and songwriting standpoint and even does his best to excel from the standard bassist’s procedure of playing root notes. Stretching back to a song like “Cheerleader,” it’s explicit that his focus is to be as performative as possible with the bass, maintaining a limbo – though not stuck, per se – between fortitude and contribution to melody. Tracks such as “Three Rings” and “Cut-Out” are demonstrative exercises in his ongoing efforts to keep this discipline alive and well.
Considering the masterful acumen of Rossen, Taylor, and drummer Chris Bear; it’s easy to mistake the literal stunted instrumentality of Ed Droste for incompatibility. It is true that as Grizzly Bear has expanded from Droste’s bedroom project to full-fledged titanic four-piece of indie rock, the spotlight has widened in scope to include the additional three and no longer owes its greatness to one member. Still, Droste’s writing chops remain the band’s strongest, beating out Rossen’s cryptic leanings for something more earnest and heart-on-sleeve. “Three Rings” just may be his magnum opus. Is the man’s heartache in a state of flux? Regardless of the answer, Droste’s lovelorn letter to the specter of an absent partner absolutely rends the heart, playing out like a shamelessly pitiful variation on Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” Before the climactic soul-pouring cacophony, he sings, “I wanna show you my best side/I wanna be the guy who’s right,” later adding towards the end, “Don’t you know that I can make it better?” With desperation laid bare like this, you cannot help but weep and pine alongside him.
The LP’s title evokes a sense of beautification, and in that sense, it can be attributed to Grizzly Bear’s aptitude for subverting pop music, horseshoeing around its structures and coaxing them to bend at their will to create something altogether new and profound. Several of these numbers elevate baseline “indie rock” to an echelon of sophistication and oneness unseen in most players in the game. Take for example “Glass Hillside,” likely the most accomplished selection from the new batch, which shifts from a chamber hymn to a refrain of grand gesture with Steely Dan inhibitions – it’s this kind of craftsmanship that puts them in a league of their own, separate from alleged contemporaries like Vampire Weekend; a league that invokes its listeners to tilt their heads and think, Damn. Grizzly Bear are in top form when putting the unthinkable to tape while keeping it palatable, and Painted Ruins continues that exciting trend of workable chaos.
You may purchase the record here.
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